Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Islay to Cork - Day 13 Part 2 - Inishbofin

After our early morning visit to Inishkea North we motored south for three hours, passing along the way the pointy tip of Achill Head. After rounding the east headland of Inishbofin Island, a turn to starboard lead us to Bofin Harbour, one of the best natural harbours in the west of Ireland. With the aid of several white daymark towers we found a safe passage to the inner harbour.

We dropped anchor off the ruin of a large castle. Known as Cromwell's Barracks, it dates to the 1650s, and was built on the site of an earlier stronghold of Spanish pirates: pirates who were in the habit of stringing a chain barrier across the harbor to trap unwary visitors.

The Cromwell Barracks have a sinister history. Catholic priests, rounded up and accused of treason to the crown were imprisoned here until deportation to the West Indies. At first glance I thought I would make an overland walk to see the castle. But a look at the map showed it was on a tidal island. Besides requiring a hard three miles round trip walk, I was not sure if the tide would be a problem, so I decided not to make the walk. Instead - I do have my priorities - I noticed a sign for the Doonmore Hotel and pub that pointed west. So I made a leisurely walk of 15 minutes in that direction, where I found Susan, one of my fellow passengers, about to order a Guinness. I joined her for a pint.

I have to confess I did not make the walk just to imbibe, but to get a photo of Hjalmar Bjorge anchored in front of the castle.

It was then time to do some seriously fast walking. The old monastic settlement (7th century) founded by St Colman of Lindesfarne, and the 12th century abbey dedicated to him, lay two miles to the east. I only had an hour of shore leave left, and it was a hilly two miles, so when I saw a sign advertising bicycles for rent, I thought that that would be just the ticket. The bicycle hire shop was in the direction I needed to go, but by the time I reached it I was almost at the abbey, so I gave it a pass. A little further on, as I crested a rise in the road, I came upon this beautiful scene.

It was not an easy walk down to the ruin of the church; the rough ground covered with old tombstones lying in grass, rocks, brambles, thistles, and spiky gorse.

Lying below the altar was a balluan stone. I am not sure what these stones were used for, but it looked like a font for holy water - you can see the stone in the next photo. Also seen in the photo is a niche at the base of the gable (right side). This niche was full of skulls well into the late 19th century. A dozen of the skulls were stolen by scientific 'headhunters' in 1890 for use in early anthropological studies (see this page).

There is a holy well here dedicated to St Flannan (as in the Flannan Isles). The map showed it feeding a stream that drains into nearby Church Lough, but I was unable to find it in the rampant vegetation.

I did not have much time left on Inishbofin (which means the island of the white cow), and as I hurried back to the pier I came across a handsome white calf. (See this page for one version of how the island got its name.) It is said an old woman and her white cow appear whenever there is an impending disaster - the last time they were seen was November 8, 2016.

As I neared the harbour I passed this pub at the east end of the harbour. With the brilliant sunshine and blue sea it looked like a Caribbean resort. Unfortunately I did not have time to indulge in another pint.

Tied up at the pier were the two Inishbofin ferries. The regular boat Island Explorer, and if you are in a hurry the Inishbofin fast ferry Island Express.

Before we boarded the inflatable I had a chance to talk to a local about day-trips available for people staying on the island. I asked because one of my desired 'asterisked' isles lay only five miles from Inishbofin: an island known as Ardoilean (High Island). Lying atop this island is an intact 7th century monastery that would be fascinating to see. But, sadly, we would not have time to land there. We had five hours of sailing to find an anchorage for the night, and it was already 4 pm. So I was thinking that in the future I'd stay on Inishbofin for a week or two and possibly charter a boat to High Island.

High Island
What I was told about visiting the island made me appreciate Scotland and its right to roam. I was told the owner of High Island did not want people landing there. But (nod nod, wink wink) he inferred it could be done. I was also told the island is for sale for $1.4 million. It had an appeal: retiring to an isolated island; sleeping in a beehive cell; living off seabirds and fishing from cliffs. But I don't think my wife would go for it. You can see a sales pitch for the island here that has some photos of the monastery.

We had a long voyage ahead of us before calling it a day; all the way to the Aran Isles, a steam of 50 miles. And on the following day we needed to cover another 100 miles to Dingle town. The forecast was bleak, and at Dingle we could wait for a weather window that would allow us to transit the extreme southwest corner of Ireland.

For more on beautiful Inishbofin see this Irish Islands page.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Islay to Cork - Day 13 Part 1 - Inishkea - Another Asterisked Island

After our visit to Inishglora there was not much daylight left, so Mark and Tim decided to make a short motor to an island with a sheltered anchorage that they'd spotted on the chart. Luckily for me, that island was Inishkea North - another of my asterisked isles. We dropped anchor 500 feet off the island in time to have dinner at 8pm. The plan for shore leave was an unusual one. In the morning we'd make a pre-breakfast landing on the island.

Up at the crack of dawn I fortified myself with a cup of coffee laced with chocolate. Breakfast would have to wait - we had an island to see. At 7am we loaded into the inflatable, and then motored across the calm bay to land on the sands of Inishkea North. 

Inishkea comes from the Gaelic Inis Gé, which means Goose Island; named for the barnacle geese that spend the winter here. None were about, but over a hundred curlews were on the water. The island hosted a monastery from the 6th thru the 10th century. The only remnants of it are the ruin of a chapel dedicated to St Columba that sits on the highest point on the island, and some tumbled beehive cells atop a large sandhill. 

An amazing sight greeted us when we landed: the village ruins lit to a golden hue by the rising sun. The village is named 'Cloughnacallydivva' on the map, which is a corruption of the Gaelic Cloch na Cailli Duibhe, which I believe means something like the stones of the women in black (nuns), similar to Taigh nan Cailleachan Dubha on Lewis.

The village was like a combination of St Kilda and Mingulay; a row of stone houses standing high above the south side of the bay, and another cluster of houses scattered above the north side that are gradually being buried by drifting sand.

Walking through the ruins, one by one in the early morning light, was one of the best island-going experiences ever. I had to think that this is how St Kilda should be: left to gracefully age, instead of being artificially maintained. The village had been quite prosperous in its time, with lots of fertile farmland, and a prosperous fishing industry, including lobster, hake, and shrimp. It was also known for good whisky. Eighteen families were here in 1855 but, like Kilda, the island was abandoned in the 1930s.

The land above the village was crisscrossed by several stone-walled roadways, which I followed to the highest point of the island to get to St Columba's Church.

St Columba's Church
The oddest thing on the island is a giant sandhill. Atop it lies several ruined beehive cells, and at its base is a burial ground dedicated to St Columba. The beehives are marked on the 19th century map as Thurrows, a name for beehive cells not used in Scotland. Another name used for these cells in Ireland is Torthaigh, which shows up on the map of Inishglora and translates as Tower House.

After wandering around the island for another hour I returned to the village, taking advantage of the early morning light to get some more photos.

With 15 minutes left I found a place to sit above the beach. This was the time on an island visit that I usually crack open a beer, but it was a little early for that - even for me.

I could have spent all day here, but we had to be moving on. A gale was brewing. It would arrive in a few days, so we needed to make it at least as far as the Aran Islands (100 miles) by the end of the day. The good news was that the sun was shining, and along the way we'd pay a visit to Inishbofin, the island of the white cow.

For more on Inishkea see this Irish Islands page.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Islay to Cork - Day 12 - Inishglora - An Asterisked Island

In 1988 I bought an atlas of Ireland. I was planning a trip where my wife and I were going to drive from Dublin, down along the south coast, and up into Kerry. Looking at the atlas one night I noticed a bunch of small islands off the west coast of Ireland marked with asterisks. The following example shows four of those asterisked islands.

I learned that the asterisks indicated sites of early Christian monastic ruins. I made a note of all these islands, and spent several years reading about them. The super-nova of all these sites was Skellig Mhicheal, which would become famous 30 years later in the Star Wars movies. I was fortune to visit Skellig in 1991: a visit described in these posts.

Skellig Michael
Aside from Skellig, the rest of those asterisked isles remained elusive. Among them Inishmurray, Inishglora, Caher Island, High Island, Illauntannaig, Inishkea North, Inishkea South, Inishtookert, and Saint MacDara's Island. The weather on several visits to Ireland prevented me from getting to one of the stars in this galaxy of monastic isles: Inishmurry. None of these other asterisked islands had commercial day trips, so my chances of getting to them seemed remote. And so when Northern Lights advertised a cruise down the west coast of Ireland I immediately signed on. I knew conditions would determine where we could land, but I hoped that we'd be able to see a few of those asterisked isles. 

* * *

After exploring Tory Island on September 16 (see the last post), Hjalmar Bjorge motored 25 miles southwest to find a calm anchorage in Rossilion Bay, on the south side of Aranmore Island. The next morning we set a course to the south, and when Mark asked for an idea as where to land, I had no lack of suggestions: the main one was Inishglora; one of those asterisked islands I'd learned about 30 years ago.

The weather was amazing, and in short order we were dropping anchor a hundred yards south of Inishglora: several of its monastic ruins visible from the sea. The name Inisglora translates as the isle of purity - said to come from the belief that bodies left on the island never decompose. 

In short order we landed on a small sandy beach below the monastery. My first priority was to find a fifth-century triple beehive cell that was the heart of the monastery. The site of the triple cell was easy to find. Two of the cells were just large circular foundations buried under thick turf. But the stonework of the largest of the three, St Brendan's Cell, some twenty feet in diameter, still stood to a height of six feet on its west side. The cell was mostly intact when it was described in 1895 as being twelve feet high, with a three-foot hole at its apex. It is thought that the cells were occupied by monks into the early 1600s. As I sat in the cell the only sounds came from seals singing offshore, and the drumming of a snipe.

St Brendan's Cell

Plan drawings of the 3 beehives in 1841 - St Brendan's Cell at left
Before leaving Brendan's Cell I set my pack down and extracted a book. It was a special book, a copy of a travelling book I'd discovered in the beehive cell of Bothan Ruadh on Lewis several years ago. I placed it in a stone cupboard near the floor of the cell. The book, snug inside a sturdy plastic envelope, should survive the coming winter. Hopefully some pilgrim to the island next spring will find it. (See this page for the story of the book.)

The book in the cupboard of Brendan's Cell
Near the cell was another interesting structure: St Brendan's Well. It was once roofed beehive style, but the stones of the dome have fallen. The walls still survive, as does a stone stairway leading down to the well.
Brendan's Well
The most architecturally interesting remnant of the monastery is St Brendan's Chapel, also referred to as St Brendan's Oratory. When intact, it would have looked like the Gallarus Oratory in Dingle, pictured below.

Myself, my wife, and her parents at Gallarus in 1991
Only a few lower bits of the oratory's corbelled roof are still in place. The fallen roof stones have been assembled into stone beds on the floor of the oratory and in the surrounding burial ground, Still in place is a large stone hinge built into the oratory gable, identical to the one inside Gallarus.

For centuries a wooden statue of St Brendan stood by the west gable of the oratory. Below is an 1841 sketch of the statue when it was in place (from this Ireland Illustrated page). Due to being open to the elements the statue was well worn then. In 1895 it was described as a shapeless lump, and it was gone by 1932. It was probably in the oratory that the tale of the Children of Lir came to an end. Changed into swans they eventually settled on Inishglora. As one version of the story goes, St Brendan baptized them here, and shortly afterwards they crumbled to dust. 

Adjacent to the oratory is a more recent building known as the Men's Church. There was once a Women's Church near the shore, but it has been mostly washed away by the surf. The following photo shows Brendan's oratory (at left), an old cross, its arms worn away, and the Men's Church (at right).

Standing 60 feet west of the monastic buildings are the remnants of several houses, last occupied in the 1930s. Many of the stones missing from the beehives were probably used in the building of these houses. See this Irish Islands page for history on the island's residents in the 19th and early 20th century.

When it was time to leave we made our way back to the small beach. Mark and Tim has also come ashore to explore: Mark finding the skeleton of what may have been a bottlenose whale. It was hard to leave glorious little Inishglora, but we had a lot of sea-miles to cover, and time was short. Just as Mark was approaching in the inflatable, Pam came up behind me holding a book she'd found. Uh oh. It was the one I'd left in Brendan's Cell. After explaining that I wanted to leave it there, I ran back to the cell to return it. 

I was ecstatic at having landed on Inisglora. One of my asterisked isles had been seen. I didn't know it at the time, but on the next day we'd see another.